Questions & Answers for Tomorrow’s Aviation Developers with Vance Hilderman, CEO and founder, AFuzion
It wasn’t difficult catching up with aviation’s Vance Hilderman, because he’s easy to find working in 30 different countries each year. And he cannot run a two-hour marathon, thus he was easy to catch. We wanted to see if Hilderman had any future aviation vision insights for us, particularly since he’s been in our industry for exactly 40 years now. And the timing was fitting: this new year is “2020” and for pilots like Vance Hilderman, “20-20” also symbolizes perfect vision..
As you may know, Hilderman is the entrepreneurial founder of numerous aviation and safety-critical services/product companies, a prolific author of many articles, papers and books on aviation development, and a forthright outspoken individual. His independent and self-confident streak likely comes from his Montana upbringing where deer outnumber people by ten-to-one and aviation is a vital transportation mechanism, not merely a hobby. His great uncle built one of Montana’s first airplanes and flew without lessons, but crashed it on its third flight (he survived). The photo of that crash encouraged Vance to doggedly pursue higher education and he has three college degrees including two Master’s (Howard Hughes Fellow at USC).
We asked Hilderman before a morning jog if he had any running-based wisdom for aviation engineers. Interestingly, Vance said, “Yes, aviation actually resembles running: success requires skill, practice, coaching, technology and some pain. Just recently the world marathon record was broken by an incredibly hard-working and smart athlete who beat the ‘impossible’ two-hour barrier. But he used a real-time support team and was wearing Nike’s futuristic running shoes designed to break records: an average 4% speed improvement over competitor‘s shoes. So running is like aviation, each year we try to design aircraft which are 4% ‘More’ than last year; more economical, quicker to market and more safe. We succeed with technology. Companies like AFuzion are in business solely to help aviation companies worldwide achieve ‘More’. So winning in running is remarkably similar to aviation,” Hilderman says.
Almost certainly everyone reading this has had math or engineering classes which were taught by smart people but you learned little. The same was true for Vance Hilderman – he states with certainty that, “Every professor I ever had was smarter than me. But most could not communicate their expertise in an optimal way so the learning was less effective. We engineers are simply not known for great communication skills. Fortunately I value mentors, both giving and receiving, and I was blessed with a fabulous mentor 35 years ago; she told me to pursue Toastmasters and improve my public speaking ability. After five years of weekly Toastmaster speaking practice sessions I’m still not a great speaker like some of our recent Presidents. But I’m far better than I was, and our aviation profession is more honest, so it’s a win-win. Today, I’ve taught 21,500 avionics engineers various courses in DO-178C, ARP4754A, DO-254, etc. – at least they don’t fall asleep in my classes!”
We asked Hilderman why he originally entered the aviation field. He actually wanted to be a fighter pilot and passed all the aptitude and skills tests, but washed out on the vision test. “You need that 20-20 vision for landing on aircraft carriers, and obviously depth perception is vital; mine was lacking. So I instead took degrees in electrical engineering and computer engineering to enter aerospace. In the early days, I worked for Hughes Aircraft where we designed systems for missiles to intercept aircraft. Then I switched to the civil world where the same mathematics was used to prevent collisions.”
Hilderman pursued his Private Pilot certificate for the simple reason of better understanding aviation. “Today we have many engineers worldwide designing avionics systems. To be honest, I don’t think an automotive engineer could design great cars without ever having driven one. Aviation is even more complex,” he says. “Most of the good avionics engineers I’ve met are pilots. At AFuzion, almost half the engineers are pilots also.”
Fun Five with Vance Hilderman
1. You’ve written a book and you have another coming out soon. Tell us about the new book and when it will be available:
The next one coming out is called “The Avionics Development Ecosystrem – Applying DO-178C & Related Guidelines.” It’s a one stop resource to help people navigate the tens of thousands of pages of literature and regulations out there. It provides a real cogent, codified, understandable resource that readers can finally achieve that “aha” moment for aviation and avionics development. The expected publication date is March 1, 2020.
2. What do you think the next big thing in the aviation and aerospace industry will be?
Urban air mobility (UAM) with battery powered aircraft for pollution reasons. Also vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL), not just for Amazon deliveries – that’s not that compelling to me. What is compelling to me is the horrible Los Angeles traffic. It’s only getting worse in urban area. I think eVTOL is going to happen so that people to have more mobility without driving.
3. You work with very technical people so when you’re hiring someone, what qualities or characteristics do you look for in that person beyond the technical?
Number one is their commitment to their families and their community. We want people as service providers who can relate to other people. We want individuals who have a healthy family life, a healthy community involvement. Those are typically great people to hire. It sets a boundary for integrity, for involvement, for people who are fun and probably also great communicators. So those are all real key things we look for. By the time they get to me in the food chain for interviewing, they’ve got fantastic technical credentials and they’re probably smarter than me. So I always hire people with that integrity, family commitment and community involvement.
4. You’ve traveled all over the world. What is one of your favorite destinations and why?
Oh, one of my favorite places is Turkey! I think it’s a beautiful country with great people, amazing food and scenery. It’s considered so far away because it’s an extra two hours flying further [beyond Europe]. It’s worth that extra two hours to go visit Turkey.
5. You offer mentoring services. Why is that so important to you and what advice would you give someone just starting out in the aerospace business?
Well, I would tell them to join Toastmasters and to be better communicators. Don’t wait 10 years like I did. I tell them to find a business mentor, somebody who can help them negotiate, especially if they’re starting off in aerospace. As technical people, we have gaps in our social skills, communication skills. It can be really helpful. The mentoring thing – think of sailing a sailboat. We’re not important compared to the rudder and the sail. But we have to provide occasional inputs to the sail and the rudder. Those occasional inputs, I call it a difference in the direction of spirit. Our lives need to be steered in the same way. So a small course correction can go a long way. Mentors are really great at providing healthy course corrections to optimize our sailing path.
We asked Hilderman what interesting projects he’s pursuing today, or at least what details he could share without violating any confidentiality agreements. “AFuzion is small with only 38 engineers and just 10-12 clients at a time. We turn down about 40% of the business as it’s not germane or we’re too busy. But right now we have seven engineers designing NASA’s new manned satellites, several engineers designing tomorrow’s eVTOL aircraft/systems, engineers bringing real-time determinacy to Multi-Core CAST-32A processing, two new software development process optimizations via Agile, a new rotorcraft sensing system, a couple of advanced military missile systems, the EGNOS satellite system, new FPGA certification techniques and we’re leading the way in aviation cyber-security via DO-326A. And four or five more projects that I’d love to describe but our company lawyer is already busy. Suffice it to say, aviation’s wow-factor is accelerating. Aerospace is anything but dull. While our folks love teaching classes at all the major aviation tech conferences, the real reason we love going is to see the amazing rapidity with which innovation is occurring within aviation.”
Everyone knows aviation is a team effort and while the spotlight is often on luminaries and leaders, real-world companies succeed via team leadership. We asked Hilderman how he leads AFuzion. “We engineers are known for our passion and we think we’re intelligent. But unbeknownst to us most non-engineers think we’re lousy leaders and they’re often right. In my early engineering internships I realized that I wasn’t a great leader, even though I was an Eagle Scout who lead a couple dozen boys and was the head French fry cook at a fast-food joint. I think getting an MBA really helped me personally. Also finding or paying a mentor to help learn leadership is highly advisable. I certainly had leadership failures in my past. Today, AFuzion only hires people smarter than me; why would we need someone less capable than the boss? We ensure they’re in the top 10% of their peer group, honest, well-liked and self-starters. Then we turn them loose and help them succeed with our clients. So far we have a 100% client success rate, where those clients all say they would, or did, hire us back. So I guess we haven’t failed there.”
Speaking of failures, aviation has successes and failures so we asked Hilderman what his greatest failures were. He candidly replied “Oh, I’ve had many failures. But they turned out to be the greatest success enablers. One advantage some cultures have is acceptance of failure as a learning tool. The western USA is one such demographic. Indeed, I’ve started seven companies, three of which were very prominent in aviation. But three of them are almost unknown Why? Because they failed, bankrupt, I lost all my money and time. But I promise you I learned 10 times more from my failures than from my successes. Folks should not be afraid of failing…instead they should be afraid of not trying. I’m getting older and likely will only be working in aviation another 30-40 years. Then I’ll make cappuccino’s and pour wine at the old folks’ home. I’m sure I’ll continue to have failures. My first wife could probably share a few more!”
Speaking of wine, we’ve heard unsubstantiated stories that Hilderman is fond of nice wine and has a rather unusual cellar. So we asked him about that. “Oh yes, thank god wine was found to have some health benefits, so I’m sure to take care of my health at least 3-4 times per week. But please don’t ask me which form of exercise is most healthy: running, cycling, surfing, yoga, hiking or decanting. I might use a reverse order from that.” But what about his cellar and its alleged affiliation with aviation. “Well, aviation is intense. It’s both my hobby and my life, my passion and my relaxation.
So my wine cellar is a recreated DC-8 fuselage, complete with fully functioning bathroom, shower and separate 1,000 bottle refrigerated wine cellar in one of my homes. It’s recreated to be old and the wine bottles inside are 10-40 years young. Since we have six children who are also connoisseurs, there’s a video camera system, with dual redundancy. I tell them the video is for my viewing pleasure when I’m traveling on business. But like avionics systems we design, many have dual-purposes.”